‘Visa run’ crackdown: Where to next for Thailand’s ‘digital nomads’?
Share this on

‘Visa run’ crackdown: Where to next for Thailand’s ‘digital nomads’?

Thailand’s immigration crackdown on border runs (aka visa runs), begun last week, stirred interest among ex-pats and travelers because of the uncertainty it caused for those planning a trip the Kingdom, and those who have more or less made a home in it. The crackdown does not affect those on long-term visas, such as retirement or education visas and those with work permits. But it does affect a growing number of so-called ‘digital nomads‘ and location-independent entrepreneurs who work online and often reside for several months at a time in various countries in Southeast Asia.

Thailand is particularly attractive for these purposes, thanks to the low cost of living and high quality of life, fast and reliable wifi, and up to now, a fairly easy visa situation. Tourists can obtain double entry tourist visas that allow them 60-day stays per entry, both of which can be extended for an additional 30 days, for a total of six months in the country. Until last week, those between visas were able to obtain visa exemption stamps by exiting and re-entering the country on the same day at popular border crossings such as Mae Sai, in Chiang Rai province. The new crackdown, however, limits and in some cases prohibits tourists from doing these border runs, which could make it more of a challenge to stay in the country. Certainly, it is often more convenient to simply fly to a nearby country and apply for a new tourist visa. But depending on where you apply, consulate officers may reject the application if the applicant has had too many consecutive visas.

(MORE: Thailand visa run crackdown could create headaches for expats)

So what are the options? One is getting a longer-term visa to stay in Thailand. Though tourist visas are convenient, it can eventually become a hassle to continually need to leave and apply for a new one, and can be stressful if you already have several in your passport. Education visas allow for a one-year stay, and can be obtained by enrolling in a Thai language or Muay Thai class. You’ll need documentation from the school to prove you’re enrolling in a class, but the process is fairly straightforward and costs a few hundred dollars. If you know you want to stay in Thailand for an extended period of time, getting on a long-term stay visa will save you hassle and money down the road. Otherwise, getting a couple of double-entry visas while traveling around the region still makes the most sense.

Thailand will likely remain an attractive destination for online entrepreneurs and freelancers, because of the low costs for things like rent, quality food, wifi, nightlife and entertainment, and travel. Thailand is developed enough to be comfortable while still being attractive financially. But it’s not the only place that offers those perks. The following are other locations in the region suitable for setting up for a few months at a time and working online.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (also known as Saigon) ranks high on the list of locales for digital nomads and entrepreneurs. Thanks to fast wifi – essential for those building a business online – and a low cost of living, it provides a high-energy alternative to a smaller city like Chiang Mai. Some bloggers have shared that their total monthly expenses hover around $1,000, including rent, groceries, coffee, entertainment, and other daily needs. Others have written about it being a uniquely beneficial place to bootstrap a business. Street food is inexpensive and there is an abundance of cafes, also a perk for those who work solo or mostly online but don’t want to hole up in their apartment alone during the work week. It’s also easy and relatively cheap to travel to places like Hanoi, Nha Trang, and Da Nang. Similar to Thailand, travelers can get a 30-day visa on arrival or apply for a three-month visa before arriving in the country.

Bali, Indonesia attracts people from around the globe to its famed beaches and promises of inner peace and tranquility (helped, no doubt, by the image sold by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love.) But it’s also become a destination for location-independent entrepreneurs looking to build a business in a beautiful and affordable setting. One complaint that arises about Bali is that the wifi is not always reliable or fast enough for certain business-related activities, though the situation is improving. The cost of living is relatively low, although as Dan Andrews of Tropical MBA has written, finding a short-term housing rental can be time-consuming and expensive. Nonetheless, the setting is gorgeous and there are plenty of inexpensive food options and perks of living there. Visitors can get a 30-day visa on arrival for $25, which can be extended an addition 30 days before needing to leave the country. Other options include business and retirement visas.

Cebu, Philippines is another hub for those working online. The cost of living in the Philippines is low, and you’ll have easy, cheap access to the country’s beautiful beach destinations, such as Bohol Island and El Nido. Rent and food are inexpensive, and a six-month visa can be obtained before entering the country (or you can get 30 days on arrival). The age for retirement visas in the Philippines is 35, much lower than in other countries, so for those who know they want to settle in for a while and meet the age requirement, that might be an option to look into.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is  less popular as a location-independent entrepreneurs’ hub, but it is an option for those looking for an inexpensive alternative to Thailand in Southeast Asia. The visa situation is perhaps the most convenient in the region, as travelers can apply for an “ordinary visa” that can be extended up to 12 months as a multiple-entry visa, according to MovetoCambodia. Not having to worry about border runs or visa extensions for a year is no small thing when you’re trying to get into a routine and run a business without the logistical hassles. But it is smaller and less developed than other popular hubs.

The reality is that many of those working remotely or for themselves who are traveling the world while building their businesses are likely going to rely on tourist visas for their stays in many of these countries. Trips out of country for visas are par for the course, which many see as a good opportunity to visit home, spend time with friends in other countries, or just take a vacation to allow enough time to pass between visa applications to get back to where they want to be. Getting creative and planning ahead generally allows you to avoid any hassles with immigration and the low cost of flights around the region makes visa planning sometimes tedious but doable. Keep in mind that visa restrictions and requirements may vary depending on nationality, so it’s important to check